September 2, 2009
There are certain truisms we've learned from childhood. Like, "If you play with fire, you're going to get burned." Or, "What goes up, must come down."
Well, here are a few truisms that aren't as catchy, but are every bit as certain. If you cram prisoners into a small space and give them nothing productive to do, you will breed violence. Or if you release prisoners back into the community not having taught them how to live as law-abiding citizens, you will soon see them return to prison.
And finally, if politicians adopt "lock 'em up and throw away the key" policies, but don't adequately fund the prison system, they will turn our prisons into ticking time bombs.
Case in point: the recent bloody riot at California's prison at Chino. It lasted 20 hours. Some 250 inmates were injured. Men attacked each other with shards of glass and broken water pipes, inflicting stab and head wounds so severe that scores of victims had to be rushed to local hospitals.
The violence at Chino wasn't just predictable, it was predicted. Wayne Scott, former director of the Texas prisons, visited Chino back in 2007. He said at the time, "If the prisoners wanted to take over the dorm they could do so in a second and no one would know." Sadly, he was right.
Chino prison was built to hold 3,000 prisoners. But now it bulges with 5,900. Violent prisoners mingle with more vulnerable, non-violent inmates in cramped quarters with no place to hide. Budget cuts have eliminated the educational, vocational, and addiction-treatment programs that used to help prisoners prepare for life on the outside.
But Chino isn't the only prison bursting at the seams. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that 19 states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons are operating at more than 100 percent capacity. Another 20 are on the cusp of the same crisis.
As followers of Jesus, we absolutely must care about the God-given dignity of every human being—even prisoners. But beyond that, just from the standpoint of public safety, deplorable prison conditions and overcrowding are simply not acceptable. The reality is that 95 percent of all inmates will serve their time and be released back to our communities. You can't cage men like animals and expect them to be model citizens when they return home.
Farsighted leaders in a few states have shown that it is possible to lower prison populations while keeping the public safe. Last year "Tough on Crime" Texas was able to scrap plans to build three more prisons by expanding probation and parole services and investing in community treatment for the mentally ill and low-level drug addicts.
Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina, and South Carolina have all joined Texas in reducing their prison population while also slashing the crime rate.
These states are saving hundreds of millions of dollars by reserving costly prison beds for truly dangerous criminals. At the same time, they are keeping low-risk offenders accountable in the community.
The riot at Chino is not unique—nor are the conditions that created it. But you can promote real reforms that will help your state deal with overcrowding in ways that save money and enhance public safety. To join us, visit our website at Justice Fellowship.org, and we'll show you how.
Note: This commentary delivered by PFM President Mark Earley.
Chuck Colson's daily BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print.